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Tree Roots

October 25, 2018

When I was a young girl--until I reached college-age and headed to the Midwest--I lived in Pennsylvania. Penn’s Woods, my mom taught me. We lived in a small split-level home at the bottom of a hill. The hill was covered with trees. We’d look to the hill and trees every morning, almost as a gauge of the day to come.

The woods comprised the top perimeter of our yard. My parents had a great admiration for trees. The hill’s trees were not enough. While growing up, I remember my dad planting many: evergreen, fruit-bearing, flowering. Each had a place. Pear and apple, white pine and blue spruce, sugar maple and red oak, crabapple and linden made their home in our yard.  

Trees were our seasonal markers. When my sister, brothers and I were young, my mom often put our lunches on paper plates on hot summer days. “Take your picnic out and sit under the two maples.” The maples were the biggest trees in our yard at the time and provided shade. We’d sit and eat, trace burls on the trunks with our fingers, pull a few leaves, toss seedling helicopters, loll around under them for hours. Mom knew something about kids and trees. We climbed trees in the summer and perched there hidden, legs dangling. We sat in our neighbor’s catalpa tree and smoked the long pods as pretend tiparillos. Late summer promised crabapple fights; these were a rite of passage and more like hide-and-seek with a stash of crabapples at-the-ready if found. This game was boys versus girls, and I never admitted that being the target of an apple strike hurt. Chores every fall included raking leaves, but my dad also asked me to pick up pine cones; my hands would be covered with their sap. We gathered fruit in baskets from the apple and pear trees for my mom’s pies and crisps. We collected acorns and painted them to resemble little menfolk with caps. As a family, we drove to nearby state parks at the height of foliage season to enjoy the leaves. The drives were beautiful; the trees hugged the winding roads and my parents commented on the crimsons and whether or not the color compared to years past. I remember our family took a neighbor boy along one year and he stated, “If you’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” My parents never tired of his comment, repeated it every year and had a good laugh.  In the winter the trees showcased the snow; my mom detested snow but admitted the trees made it alright. If we received an ice storm, my dad was outside and to the rescue. I watched as he de-iced branches and saw the trees spring back. One winter afternoon, my older brother rammed his runner sled into a white pine; he came in crying and my dad asked, “How’s the tree?” Windy March days were for kite-flying, but inevitably one unlucky kite ended up tangled in a tree. One kite waved to us from the top of a tall tree for years until it was no more than tatters. Spring was tree talk: the budding, which leaves emerged first, the green of spring versus summer’s green, the flowering, the constant threat of a frost. 

A good tree also provided drama. My dad was the school principal when I was little; he was strict and not a favorite with defiant school kids. There was a particular group of rebels, The Filthy Few, who were notorious in our town. One Saturday morning I came downstairs early to find my sister in a daze, my mom crying, my dad angry. Some of The Few had had too much to drink Friday night and run their car up our front knoll. They plowed over our flowering crabapple, cutting it in half. I remember jumping up on our couch to peer out the roll-out window to the side yard. I saw the tree lying there—broken in two. It was a tough morning; my dad dug up the stump and replanted, but somehow the new sapling didn’t fill the former tree’s shoes.  

I also clearly recall my mom’s favorite. Her tree. It was an aspen poplar and was planted on top of the back ridge. My mom spent most of her young married life in our kitchen; I would catch her at the kitchen screen door, looking up to the poplar. She watched that tree like we’d watch a television show.  She named it The Silver Dollar Tree. She taught us to look to its leaves. The slightest wind caught; seeing its leaves move was like looking through a kaleidoscope. On sunny days, the tree shone. If she said, “The Silver Dollar’s leaves are inside out,” we knew a storm was brewing. One Saturday, she took us to a nearby town to get new school shoes. When we returned, Silver Dollar was history. My dad had cut it down. For a while he had alerted us that the tree had root rot; none of us had paid attention. He replaced it with a hardier species, but again, the attachment and loss didn’t dissolve overnight. There was a bit of tension in the house for a while; The Silver Dollar had been Mom’s link to the outdoors--her bright spot.

I could continue but the prompt from The Arboretum asked to share a tree story and specifically one that is Chicago-based.  My writing misses on both counts, but maybe trees and their associated memories can’t be limited in scope.


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